253 What Darwin Got Wrong

 Two distinguished professors of cognitive science—Jerry Foder (Rutgers) and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (University of Arizona)—argue, in What Darwin Got Wrong (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c. 2010), “that there is something wrong—quite possibly fatally wrong—with the theory of natural selection” (p. xiii).  The theory makes two claims:  1) natural selection is an observable process wherein “creatures with adaptive traits are selected”—i.e. survivors procreate; 2) natural selection is a guiding mechanism whereby “creatures are selected for their adaptive traits” (p. xv).  The first premise is historical—certain things happened; the second is philosophical—why these things happened.  To infer the second premise from the first is clearly illogical—what philosophers call an “intensional fallacy.”  But this is precisely what Neo-Darwinians do and thereby render the theory suspect.  As self-identified atheists, the authors firmly pledge allegiance to the philosophical naturalism their guild demands, but they do insist that clear thinking demands doubt regarding the “just so” Darwinian story.  

To build their case, Foder and Piattelli-Palmarini make a rigorous evaluation of the evidence (especially the information in-forming genetic activity) now available and believe natural selection fails to explain it.  Rather than sheer randomness, there seem to be “laws of form” giving direction to (i.e. causing) biological formation.  But neither Darwin nor his modern epigones set forth a credible theory of causation, though they claim to do so under the rubric of “natural selection.”   Darwinians, as natural historians, trace what happened, often in the dim and distant past.  They tell us what apparently happened—but not what “had to happen,” which is “the domain of theory, not of history; and there isn’t any theory of evolution” (p. 152).  “Natural history isn’t a theory of evolution; it’s a bundle of evolutionary scenarios.  That’s why the explanations it offers are so often post hoc and unsystematic” (p. 159).  Along with Marx, Darwin imagined he could extract scientific theory from history; both men were grievously mistaken.  

“‘OK; so if Darwin got it wrong,’” the authors write by way of summary, “‘what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?’  Short answer:  we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is.  As far as we can make out, nobody knows exactly how phenotypes evolve.  We think that, quite possibly, they evolve in lots of different ways; perhaps there are as many distinct kinds of causal routes to the fixation of phenotypes as there are different kinds of natural histories of the creatures whose phenotypes they are” (p. 153).  Dogmatically insisting there is no God or Intelligent Designer or Mother Nature or any kind of supervising Mind, the authors simply leave unanswered the really important question:  why did all this occur?    But they do, at least, have the intellectual fortitude to point out why Natural Selection cannot be the answer.

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Not long ago I heard the leader of an atheist movement in England elucidate why he is establishing fellowship centers to substitute for churches for folks disbelieving in God.  Explaining his views, he said “we come from nothing and go to nothing,” so living as painlessly as possible here is life’s only goal.  To say we come from nothing, of course, violates one of the clearest logical principles, for obviously nothing could come from nothing.  That a reasonably articulate man could  so cheerfully espouse nonsense illustrates one of the distressing marks of modernity:  the lack of philosophical perspicacity evident wherever scientism reigns.  As a healthy antidote, one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers, Etienne Gilson, provides a valuable perspective on modern science in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again:  A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2009, a new translation of Gilson’s 1971 treatise).  

He begins where anyone concerned with meticulous science, meaningful distinctions, and coherent logic must:  with Aristotle.  Importantly, Aristotle understood that different subjects demand  different ways of thinking—doing math differs significantly from composing music, though the two disciplines certainly share some commonalities.  When they considered questions concerning the origins of things, Pre-Socratic thinkers had, by-and-large, invoked chance and necessity, churning along in a mechanical fashion.  To Aristotle, however, it made more sense to see things as designed, with discernable purpose, much like an artistic work reflecting the mind of its maker.  Such reasoning led him to posit, when explaining things, four essential causes:  material; efficient; formal; final.  In the common sense tradition following Aristotle’s paradigm, it makes sense to understand a house as composed of material things, put together by workmen, following a blueprint, in order to provide suitable shelter.  To eliminate formal and final causes from the equation—as has been done for three centuries by scientists fixated solely on material and efficient causes—renders reality ultimately unintelligible.

For Aristotle there is an undeniable telos—an end-oriented ingredient—to all that is.  His voracious investigations of the natural world filled him with wonder:  “‘Every realm of nature is marvelous’” (p. 25).  Still more:  “‘Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in Nature’s works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful’” (p. 25).   Thus he “found teleology so evident in nature that he asked himself how his predecessors had been able to avoid seeing it there, or, still worse, had denied its presence” (p. 21).  Two millennia later Gilson asks the same question!  How can highly intelligent people not see the obvious design in things?  “In brief, if there is in nature at least an apparently colossal proportion of finality, by what right do we not take it into account in an objective description of reality?” (p. 31).  

Gilson takes us on a 400 year historical journey, showing how philosophical naturalism, with its mechanistic explanations, has become dominant in the West.  At the apex of the account stands Charles Darwin, who scrupulously expunged any hint of design (with its powerful suggestion of a Creator) from his version of evolution through Natural Selection.  Unfortunately, in his and his followers’ writings the word “Evolution has served the purpose of hiding the absence of an idea” (p. 103).  Claiming to explain everything it explains very little if anything.  Thus a distinguished French naturalist, Paul Lemoine lamented:  “The theories of evolution with which our studious youth are lulled to sleep actually compose a dogma which everyone continues to teach; but, each in his specialty, zoologist or botanist, takes cognizance of the fact that any of the explications furnished cannot stand’” (p. 104).  “‘The result of this expose,’” Lemoine said in closing his article in the Encyclopedie francaise, “‘is that the theory of evolution is impossible’” (p. 105).  And it is impossible because it cannot withstand the kind of rigorous analysis given it by philosophers such as Gilson.  

Living things cannot be explained mechanistically.  Aristotle saw this clearly centuries ago, and the “facts that Aristotle’s biology wished to explain are still there.  He is reproached, sometimes bitterly, with having explained them poorly, but up to the present no one has explained them any better’ (p. 141).  To truly understand our world we must, as did Lemaine, allow that “‘vital phenomena tend toward a precise end, from which tendency the name of “final causes” is derived’” (p. 142).  And indeed, most biologists, when seeking to explain anything, silently rely on (and develop euphemisms for) such final causes.  

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In Darwin’ Doubt:  The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York:  HarperOne, c. 2013), Stephen C. Meyer takes seriously Charles Darwin’s personal doubt regarding his celebrated theory, popularly portrayed as the evolutionary tree of life.  Darwin was deeply troubled by the lack of fossil evidence for the universal common ancestry of all living things, gradually flowering into various species through natural selection, basic to his theory of evolution.  Indeed, his work was vigorously disputed by the most celebrated fossil expert of his day, the Swiss paleontologist teaching then at Harvard, Louis Agassiz.  During a markedly brief period of time—the Cambrian Era—a great variety of animal species just suddenly appeared, with no hint of common ancestry.  To Agassiz, this “posed an insuperable difficulty for Darwinian theory” (p. 8).  

Darwin recognized this difficulty, noting:  “‘The abrupt manner in which whole groups of species suddenly appear in certain formations has been urged by several paleontologists . . . as a fatal objection to the belief in the transmutation of species.  If numerous species, belonging to the same genera of families, have really started into life all at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of descent with slow modification through natural selection’” (p. 17).  What Darwin did, to preserve his fossil-less theory, was to insist that in time further paleontological expeditions would uncover a fuller geological record that would confirm his belief in common ancestry and natural selection.  

But a series of meticulous 20th century paleontological expeditions have failed to find the evidence Darwin envisioned.  Instead there stands exposed in the fossils of the Cambrian Era a “geologically abrupt appearance of a menagerie of animals as various as any found in the gaudiest science fiction.  During this explosion of fauna, representatives of about twenty of the roughly twenty-six total phyla present in the known fossil record made their first appearance on earth” (p. 31).  Though much of the field work was done in the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies, there is an even richer fossil depository in China—the Maotianshan Shale near Chengjiang —which affords us “an even greater variety of Cambrian body plans from an even older layer of Cambrian rock” (p. 50).  This site, inspected by Chinese scientists, shows “that the Cambrian animals appeared even more explosively than previously realized” (p. 51).  Thus the renowned Chinese paleontologist J. Y. Chen declares that the evidence turns “upside down” Darwin’s tree of life imagery.  Ironically, Chen noted:  “‘In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government.  In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin” (p. 52).  The Chinese scientists have also, during the past 20 years, refined the methodology for dating the geological record, leading them to believe that the “Cambrian Explosion” took place within five to ten million years—a mere moment in earth’s five billion year history.  

Evidence regarding biological development in the Cambrian Explosion, Meyer argues, calls into question the hallowed “tree of life” depicted in standard textbooks.  Rather than a single tree, it looks like a score or more separate bushes, all beginning at the same time.  For over 3 billion years, only single-celled organisms (notably bacteria and algae) existed; then, some 560 million years ago some complex multicellular organisms, such as sponges, appeared; shortly thereafter came the Cambrian Explosion and “the oceans swarmed with animals” as a “carnival of novel biological forms arose”—all given structure by “an explosion of genetic information unparalleled in the previous history of life” (p. 163).  And the more we understand about genetics the more difficult it is to even imagine, much less demonstrate, how such living creatures emerged and evolved in accord with the Darwinian theory.  

Consequently, various naturalistic alternatives to the standard evolutionary model have been proposed.  Some biologists envision “self-organizing” patterns following certain natural laws, rather as crystals seem to spontaneously assemble.  Decades ago Stephen Jay Gould theorized that the slow process of gradual evolution advanced through inexplicable jumps, suddenly developing new life-forms.  More recently Jeffrey Schwartz, in Sudden Origins, admitted:  “We are still in the dark about the origin of most major groups of organisms.  They appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus—full blown and raring to go, in contradiction to Darwin’s depiction of evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of countless infinitesimally minute variations’” (p. 318).  Instead, he postulated some as yet indiscernible “Hox genes” that better explain it.  

“Clearly,” Meyer says, “standard evolutionary theory has reached an impasse” (p. 337).  So he proposes a better approach:  Intelligent Design.  If one is not committed to a purely materialistic metaphysic, if one is open to the possibility of a mental dimension to reality, then looking for an information-giving intelligent milieu or agent might make sense.  Meyer’s approach “affirms that there are certain features of living systems that are best explained by the design of an actual intelligence—a conscious and rational agent, a mind—as opposed to a mindless, materialistic process.  The theory of intelligent design does not reject ‘evolution’ defined as ‘change over time’ or even universal common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin’s idea that the cause of major biological change and the appearance of design are wholly blind and undirected” (p. 339).  

Meyer’s fascination with intelligent design began when, as a young scholar, he encountered the work of a chemist, Charles Thaxton, whose book The Mystery of Life’s Origin demonstrated the improbability of nonliving chemicals evolving into living biological organisms.  Thaxton and his co-authors “suggested that the information-bearing properties of DNA might point to the activity of a designing intelligence—to the work of a mind, or an ‘intelligent cause’ as they put it.  Drawing on the analysis of the British-Hungarian physical chemist Michael Polanyi, they argued that chemistry and physics alone could not produce the information in DNA any more than ink and paper alone could produce the information in a book.  Instead, they argued that our uniform experience suggests a cause-and-effect relationship between intelligent activity and the product of information” (p. 341).  

This possibility drew Meyer to go to the University of Cambridge in England, where he pursued his interests in the history and philosophy of science.  There he discovered the important role historical scientists assign to “abductive inference,” a method that infers “past conditions or causes from present clues.”  Unlike deductive logic, abductive reasoning leads to plausibility rather than certainty.  It is an “inference to the best explanation.”  Historians who understand their discipline know it’s as much an art as a science since they deal with particular events rather than universal laws.  Thus there have ever been rival hypotheses regarding past events such as the fall of the Roman Empire.  So too scholars studying evolution necessarily engage in historical work, and “whether they always realize it or not . . .typically use the method of inference to the best explanation” (p. 351).  

Applying this method to the Cambrian Era, we encounter creatures possessing layers of highly sophisticated digital information akin to “systems known from experience to have arisen as a result of intelligent activity.  In other words, standard materialistic evolutionary theories have failed to identify an adequate mechanism or cause for precisely those attributes of living forms that we know from experience only intelligence—conscious rational activity—is capable of producing” (p. 358).  Reading Macbeth we reasonably infer it was written by a literary genius, a mind telling the story—Shakespeare.  Listening to The Messiah we reasonably infer it was composed by a musical genius, a mind orchestrating text and score—Handel.  Encountering pictographs on the rocks near Boise, Idaho, we reasonably infer they were drawn centuries ago by rational human beings—Indians residing in that area.  Inevitably we think materials containing and conveying information necessarily come from conscious minds.  

Thus, as we now know, living organisms—whether molecules or cells, plants or animals, as preserved in the fossils of the Cambrian Era—“require specified and highly improbable (information-rich) arrangements of lower-level constituents in order to maintain their form and function” (p. 365).  Still more:  “Conscious and rational agents have, as part of their powers of purposive intelligence, the capacity to design information-rich parts and to organize those parts into functional information-rich systems and hierarchies.  We know of no other causal entity or process that has this capacity” (p. 366).  And “both the Cambrian animal forms themselves and their pattern of appearance in the fossil record exhibit precisely those features that we should expect to see if an intelligent cause had acted to produce them” (p. 379).  These ancient animals suddenly appeared, “without any clear material antecedent; they came on the scene complete with digital code, dynamically expressed integrated circuitry, and multi-layered, hierarchically organized information storage and processing systems” (p. 381).  

In the light of all this, might it make sense to infer, as the best explanation, an intelligence of some sort as the cause of it all?  Yes, Meyer insists, it does.  As the popular novelist Dean Koontz says, “Meyer writes beautifully.  He marshals complex information as well as any writer I’ve read. . . .  This book—and his body of work—challenges scientism with real science and excites in me the hope that the origins-of-life debate will soon be largely free of the ideology that has long colored it . . . a wonderful, most compelling read.”  

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Though Charles Darwin is generally presented to the public as a virtuous scientist, motivated by a dispassionate desire to understand the world, Benjamin Wiker argues, in The Darwin Myth:  The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2009),  that he often made misleading statements regarding his life and his claims to intellectual originality, and that these assertions were naively embraced by most of his biographers, who have portrayed him as exemplary in every way—a “secular saint who single handedly brought enlightenment to a world shrouded in the darkness of superstition and ignorance” (p. ix).  To provide the context that shows he was notably less than honest about himself and fair to his rivals, Wiker sketches a succinct overview of his life and intellectual development, giving considerable care to his theological and philosophical orientation. 

By 1859, Darwin was ready to provide the public with a “long argument” in “two long books,” setting forth his notions of “evolution through natural selection” and the purely naturalistic “descent of man.”  Especially absent in his presentation—and the clandestine case he actually advocated, Wiker contends —was absence of God in creation.  While he at times made elusive references to some higher power, Darwin clearly envisioned an essentially godless world.  “Darwin’s principle of natural selection was chosen by him precisely because it excluded any creative action by God” (p. 139).  

Darwin also envisioned an essentially amoral world, for “morality does not govern evolution.  If it did, then we might expect a divine overseer” (p. 92).  Darwin knew that “if there were a moral standard outside the process of natural selection, if the evolution of morality progressed toward that standard, if the actions of men and societies were judged by that standard, then we would be admitting a theistic account of evolution” (p.145).  Unwilling to grant this, he considered morality a survival technique—constantly changing, relative to various environments, without real substance.  Social Darwinism, celebrated by eugenicists and might-makes-right thinkers such as Nietzsche and dictators such as Stalin, naturally and necessarily followed Darwin’s philosophical views.  Consequently, Wiker suggests, he, along with Marx and Freud, may rightly be acknowledged for his importance while decried for his influence.